A Mexican warrior captain with an obsidian-tipped lance - from the Codex Mendoza
Mexico 1519...
Cortez's Conquistadors Try Some
"Leverage Artillery"

 


The following account comes from Bernal Diaz's
"History of the Conquest of New Spain".
Diaz was a member of Cortez's expedition, but only wrote the work some 50 years later, when he claimed to be deaf and blind.
Despite the wealth of the lands and people he took a hand in conquering, Diaz did not die a wealthy man.

Far from being a tale of technologically and militarily superior Europeans walking over terrified ignorants, Diaz's telling is of a worthy and brave opponent who fought with strategy, discipline and well-maintained formations - and of other local people who used the European's arrival to cast off Aztec dominance and enthusiastically launch themselves into battle as allies under their own leaders.

At the stage of Diaz's narrative described below, the struggle had swung back and forth, with both sides learning and adapting. The Mexicans, at first alarmed by the horses, soon began to make extra-long lances to strike at them while avoiding the rider's blows. Up close, they rushed the armoured Spanish, using their obsidian-edged swords to great effect - Diaz mentions a mare having its head all but severed. From a distance they rained enormous barrages of arrows, darts, sling stones and rocks on their enemies.
On the Spanish side, they had built launches to row across or fight the Mexican vessels on the lakes and canals of the Mexical capital. When the Mexican bombardment became intense they constructed siege towers which were used as a sort of timber "armoured personnel carriers". They even experimented with a catapult - and that, of course, brings us to this page…

The "Trebuchet"

"...There was a soldier in Cortez's camp who said he'd been in Italy, in the Great Captain's company, and was in the affair at Garellano and other great battles. He talked a good deal of war-engines, and said he could make a catapult in Tlatelolco which, if they were to bombard the quarter of the city into which Guatemoc had retreated, would make them sue for peace in two days.

He talked so much about it, for this man was a great talker, that Cortez promptly set to work on the catapult. They brought lime and stone and wood, as the soldier requested, and carpenters and nails and all that was needed for its construction. They made two slings of strong rope and cords, and brought up great stones bigger than demijohn jars, and when the catapult was made and rigged as he desired, the soldier said that it was ready to be discharged.

So they placed a suitable stone in the sling, but all it did was to rise to the height of the catapult and fall back to its original place.

Cortez was very annoyed with the deviser of the catapult and with himself for having believed him. He said that the man had proved that nothing was more prejudical to war than talk, and that the whole matter had been one of talk for talking's sake; and he at once ordered the catapult to be taken to pieces..."

 

So there we have the tale of the Cortez "trebuchet". It certainly could have been a trebuchet - although its construction isn't described beyond pointing out that it involved stones and mortar - possibly for foundation work - carpentry and nails, and large stones. Certainly, it had a sling. They made two, but one may have been a spare, although a sling could also describe a "bag" to hold a counterweight mass of stones. However, all this is pure conjecture…*

*nb A Spanish speaking reader has pointed out that the Spanish version of this story definitely calls this machine a trebuchet. The ambiguity appears to be due to the English translator's choice of words. This is always a danger in getting your information "indirectly".

The usual telling of the story is that the machine destroyed itself by firing its first shot vertically and having it fall back on top of itself.

The Diaz story certainly says the stone fell back into its original position and that the catapult wasn't given a chance to loose a second shot before being dismantled. Why?

Yes, it may have been wrecked - but the whole point of the story seems not to be one of a powerful device annihilating itself. Rather it seems to be of a sadly underpowered disappointment that was seen as not worth pursuing, being just "talk for talking's sake".

(p.s. The Mexicans are often described in the book as using slings to great effect. I'm left to wonder whether the sight of all those hand-held slings might have provoked the idea... a kind of "You call that a sling?... Now, this is a sling..".)

As a interesting aside, here is Diaz's description of the timber towers that they built for a particularly dangerous assault:

 
The Towers:

"Ten or twelve more soldiers were killed that day, and we all returned badly wounded. We spent the night coming to the decision that in two days' time every able-bodied soldier in the camp would sally forth under the protection of four engines, which we would construct.

These were to take the form of strong timber towers, each capable of sheltering 25 men, and provided with apertures and loopholes which were to be manned by musketeers and crossbowmen; and close beside them were to march the other soldiers, musketeers and crossbowmen, and the artillery and all the men; and the horsemen to make charges

After settling on this plan, we spent the next day building the machines and strengthening the many breaches they had made in the walls….

….When dawn broke we commended ourselves to God and sallied forth with our towers….

…Suddenly more than four thousand warriors ascended it, to reinforce the bands already posted there with long lances and stones and darts. Then all of them together took up a defensive position, and for a long time prevented our ascending the steps. Neither our towers, nor our cannon or crossbows, nor our muskets were of any avail; and although our horsemen tried to charge, the horses lost their foothold and fell down on the great slippery flagstones…

... we had so many of the enemy on both our flanks that although ten or fifteen of them might fall to one cannon shot, and many others were killed by sword thrusts and charges, the hosts against us were overwhelming. For a long time we could not ascend the cue, although we most persistently pressed home our attacks.
We did not take the towers, for they were already destroyed, but in the end we reached the top.

 

No more details are available about the towers, or how they were expected to attack the stairs. Were they wheeled or carried?
Perhaps they were to remain at the foot of the steps and provide cover fire - or perhaps their primary purpose was to get the soldiers safely to the steps.
Whatever happened next, they were destroyed, and we aren't told how... How frustrating...
 

 

The quotes above are taken from Bernal Diaz, "The Conquest of New Spain" from Penguin Classics.
ISBN 0 - 14 - 044123 - 9
Translated and introduced by J M Cohen

If you find military history interesting, or wish to get to the original version of a story rather than make do with 2nd or 3rd hand accounts, or simply want to read an amazing tale of profound consequences written by someone who was actually there, I can certainly recommend this book.

 


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